IN THE INTERNATIONAL terminal of JFK Airport, a woman asks a man she’s sweet on, “Are you coming
“I don’t know,” he replies. “Both.”
That exchange doesn’t just underscore the story of Steven Spielberg’s
marvelous new film The Terminal, about an Eastern European man forced by circumstance
to spend several months living in an airport. It ricochets in the imagination, prompting us to flash
back through some of the striking images we’ve seen up to that point, revisit Spielberg’s canon
in search of related ideas and images and realize there are so many that counting them is impossible.
At that point, we realize—or should realize, yet again—that
Spielberg is not merely one of the greatest American entertainers, but the kind of committed popular
artist the auteur theory was invented to describe. In an age when too many blockbusters seem to have
been willed into existence by fusing Madison Ave. clip reels with the front page of Variety,
Spielberg’s work is deeply personal, varied yet consistent.
The man in the above exchange is Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), an Eastern
European whose country falls into chaos right after he lands at JFK for a visit, falls through an
immigration loophole and has to live at the airport for months, waiting for the day when he can either
visit the Big Apple or go home to his shattered land. The woman is Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones),
a flight attendant who’s been in an intense, often rotten relationship with a married man for years;
at first glance, she seems to possess a freedom of movement Viktor lacks. The would-be lovers are
surrounded by supporting characters distinctive enough to anchor their own movies, including
Chi McBride as an outwardly cynical baggage handler, Diego Luna as a hopelessly romantic colleague,
Zoe Saldana as the lovely INS agent he fancies and Kumar Pallana as a janitor who likes to kick back
and watch inattentive travelers’ pratfalls on his freshly mopped floors.
This airport is a microcosm of America, but it is also an island that stands
for everyplace and no place. Viktor must learn the terminal’s rhythms and idiosyncrasies in order
to live there without losing his mind, and while he never quite thrives, he does adapt. He forges
alliances with airport employees (many of them immigrants) and learns English by studying translation
books and the tv news ticker. He even discovers ingenious ways of making a living, including rounding
up baggage carts for a quarter a pop. He’s a decent man—a hard worker but not a hustler.
Throughout The Terminal, he is repeatedly given the chance
to cut ethical corners—to “escape” to New York while terminal police and surveillance cameras
look the other way—and he nearly always refuses. In this fundamental sense, Viktor is a classic
embodiment of that Spielbergian type, the proletariat idealist—a good citizen who is temporarily
deprived of a home yet never entirely gives up hope of regaining it, or building another. Viktor
refuses to condone a confused, destructive system by breaking its rules; he would rather stand
his ground and force the people who administer the system to do the right thing and amend it.
The sheer wealth of creativity and humanity gathered onscreen makes
most other contemporary films seem lame. The central situation is concrete, nearly humdrum, yet
Spielberg’s precision elevates it to the level of modern myth. It’s like Capra doing Kafka, if you
can imagine such a thing. Spielberg’s tone is generally airy, but rarely wistful and never trivial.
He and his actors are aware of the banal tragedy of Viktor’s circumstances. This polite, rumpled
man, whose worldly possessions consist of the clothes on his back, two bags and a mysterious Planters
Peanuts can with Cyrillic writing on the side, could be a dramatic cousin of Hanks’ character in
Cast Away. (In superficial ways, The Terminal suggests Cast Away without
the weight loss.)
Given an airport full of people and props to riff on, Hanks proves again
that he’s not just the most likable leading man in American cinema, but one of the most inventive.
His fearsome emotional focus suggests De Niro in the 70s, his knack for ironic improvisation one-ups
Bill Murray and he builds comic routines around inanimate objects as joyously (if not as elegantly)
as Tati, Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire. (The scene where Hanks tries to make a bed from two rows
of hard terminal chairs is the year’s best action sequence.)
Viktor’s predicament is universal. The world is full of people who’ve
been trapped for hours or days in an airport without finding out when, exactly, they’ll be allowed
to move on to their destination. More significantly, the world is full of decent folk who have tried
to move from one country to another—from one way of life to another—only to find themselves
trapped between evolutionary stages by faceless forces they can neither understand nor defeat.
OF COURSE, the movie’s not perfect. No film, no filmmaker, is perfect.
The Terminal‘s flaws are the same flaws you find in almost any Spielberg movie. Over the
decades, this filmmaker has fallen into the same creative traps so many times that even for fans,
watching his movies can feel a bit like an auteurist version of Groundhog Day.
The Terminal has at least three endings where one would have
sufficed. It oversells Viktor’s decency and makes supporting characters kiss his keester via
worshipful dialogue about how much he’s taught them. The final act, which simultaneously reveals
the contents of Viktor’s peanut can and the exact nature of his visit, suggests there’s a fine line
between charming and stupid; without divulging surprises, suffice it to say that the big revelations
make Viktor seem less like the good and dedicated average man and more like the sort of bland, stubborn
obsessive you’d hate to be seated with during a cross-country flight.
And if the terminal is indeed a microcosm of America, or the world, then
it should be said, yet again, that Spielberg’s worldview is beyond rosy. He’s the last of the cockeyed
optimists, an artist who presents realistically cynical characters only to have them rediscover
the virtues of a sunny disposition in the third act, by virtue of spending time in a saintly hero’s
company. Skeptics will interpret The Terminal as another Spielberg film that explores
the mechanisms of society and its inhabitants in great, sometimes enlightening detail, then subliminally
reassures us that nothing is so broke that a few committed idealists can’t fix it.
By the end of the movie, Viktor gets pretty much every reward that his
goodness deserves, and then some; our memories of his wrenching first-act despair are swallowed
up by Williams’ unnecessarily sweet, heroic orchestra and too many shots of lovable characters
haloed by heavenly backlight. For Spielberg, it’s apparently not enough to reassure us that everything
is going to be okay; he has to tell us, repeatedly, that things are going to be really, really, really
okay. Think of the last few minutes of the otherwise dark and ironic Minority Report,
which showed the renegade cop/drug-addict hero, a man driven to avenge the kidnap-murder of his
only child, standing before a sunlit window in a cute country home, embracing his very pregnant
Spielberg is a silver-lining addict and probably always will be. Even
Stanley Kubrick, a longtime admirer and friend of Spielberg’s who entrusted him with A.I.,
implicitly criticized Schindler’s List by pointing out that when Spielberg made a movie
about the Holocaust, he somehow managed to focus on a handful of Jews who weren’t murdered.
It has always seemed strange that such a technically confident filmmaker
would distrust his own power to make his case with pictures, and trust audiences’ ability to hold
two contradictory thoughts in their heads at the same time. He routinely wraps up great movies with
painfully prosaic scenes that repeat and drastically oversimplify complex sentiments he already
communicated through images. Think of the bookend sequences of Schindler’s List and Saving
Private Ryan, which seem designed to explain the film’s reasons for being made to slow-witted
viewers who might have missed them.
Thinking about this unfortunate Spielberg compulsion, I was reminded
of something a notable Hollywood character actor once told me—a smart fellow who, for obvious
reasons, shall remain anonymous here: “Spielberg is a very frustrating artist. He has such control
over his craft, and has such an ability to make you trust him, that he’s one of the only popular filmmakers
with the power to walk mainstream audiences right up to the edge of the abyss. But once he gets to the
edge, he turns you around and walks you right back.”
Or, as a New York Times Magazine piece put it: Spielberg is a hopeless
showman-panderer who cannot resist the urge to put ketchup on a perfectly good steak.
MORE TROUBLING, there is a triumphalist undertone to some of Spielberg’s
films, the Indiana Jones movies especially, but even parts of Saving Private Ryan. He’s
a very American filmmaker who often seems to suggest (inadvertently, I hope) not just that people
are all alike under the skin, but that deep down, everyone shares his white, suburban, middle-class
American value system. And if these people—all of these people around the world—don’t
realize it, well, then we need to show them.
Think of Indiana Jones at the end of 1984′s The Temple of Doom,
the white hero returning liberated Indian slave children to a once-barren village now dotted with
lush green foliage—an ad for imperialist do-goodery, some four decades after the British
left India. Spielberg is a liberal, but his apple-pie-and-ice-cream sentiments perfectly complemented
the shining-city-on-a-hill mentality of the Reagan years, which pretended universal idealism
while meeting the needs of only that part of the population already predisposed to agree with the
All the above criticisms are true, and Spielberg cannot escape them
no matter how much money his movies make and how many Oscars he wins. But at the risk of sounding overprotective,
I’d like to switch tracks and define what I call the Friendship Theory of Movies.
Most people have lots of friends, for the simple reason that it is impossible
to get everything we need from just one friend. Human beings are too complex and imperfect, so we
must content ourselves with seeking out friends who satisfy one or two needs, three if we’re lucky.
We have friends who are great at giving advice, but whom we wouldn’t trust to feed our cats when we’re
out of town. We have friends who’ve deceived or betrayed us, but who are so resourceful and clever
that we’d like to have them beside us in an unfamiliar city if our heart suddenly gave out.
This same attitude can apply to movies—and moviemakers. I’d
like to think that if it were applied more often, film criticism might seem more reasonable, less
full of mindless idolatry, adolescent snottiness, Soviet-style dead-end polemics and all-around
Oliver Stone, for instance, is a fearless dramatist and a bold assembler
of images. His jagged, free-associative montage style probably gets closer to representing our
media-addled, multitrack consciousness than any strategy in modern cinema; in sheer fluency
and daring, only Jean-Luc Godard and Craig Baldwin (Spectres of the Spectrum) can touch
him. But any moviegoer who looks to Stone for droll humor, evenhanded political analysis and nuanced
female characters is wasting his time.
Or take Kubrick, one of the great ironists and visual poets of modern
times, a cautionary satirist who took a God’s-eye view of humankind’s pitifully arrogant schemes.
He could be showily cold, cruel and reflexively smug at times. (Think of Private Joker’s wiseass
lecture in Full Metal Jacket about how the “Born to Kill” and peace symbols on his helmet
symbolize the Jungian duality of man. It’s so juvenile and embarrassing that it might have been
staged by a precocious 15-year-old who just discovered Dr. Strangelove.) And if you’re
looking to be reassured that most people are basically decent and can escape the prison of their
conditioning with a bit of elbow grease—and who hasn’t felt that way on certain days, or wished
he could feel that way?—Kubrick cannot satisfy your needs. Spielberg can.
Which is why I propose that Spielberg’s detractors treat him as they’d
treat any other thinking person they’ve known for years. They should stop expecting him to be something
he’s not (hard-edged, bleak, bitter) and instead take a closer, more appreciative look at what
he is, while keeping in mind that the relationship between artist and audience
involves a certain division of labor. The filmmaker tries to choose material that plays to his strengths,
makes a few game stabs at mastering things he’s not good at, then resolves to avoid or downplay his
own weaknesses, forge ahead and try new things, to the best of his ability. We the audience respond
by taking the artist seriously, honestly assessing his faults and virtues, seeing through his
nonsense and savoring his moments of clarity, invention and wit. That’s what friends are for.
THE TERMINAL is one of Spielberg’s most mundane yet astonishing
achievements, a work in which the director’s gift for finding poetry in everyday people, situations
and objects reaches some kind of dizzying peak. It offers more evidence of his knack for making the
ordinary seem extraordinary and vice-versa, in shot after shot of film after film—even
when (especially when) you think he has nothing on his mind but entertainment.
The Indiana Jones films, for instance, don’t presume to educate, much
less lecture. Yet they’re strewn with iconic Spielberg tropes, including translation, mastery
of unfamiliar environments, systems or puzzles and hair-raising shots of the hero passing through
portals designed to separate him from his goal, split-seconds before they slam shut. Each Indy
movie climaxes with an intense release of spiritual energy contained by religious artifacts at
risk of being misused by evil men.
The stranded E.T. learns to communicate and bond with human children,
builds a homemade radio from toys and tools, then works his way toward the mothership; the film’s
climax finds human characters watching in joy and sorrow as the alien hero disappears behind a door
to begin his voyage home. Humble electrician Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind becomes enslaved by visions after encountering a UFO, learns to interpret his visions through
art (namely sculpture), discovers an underground society of like-minded obsessives and fights
his way toward the landing site for a rendezvous with extraterrestrial life. The film’s third act
is a series of arrivals, greetings and translations (mathematical and musical) built around shots
of the mothership’s doors opening to disgorge or swallow up intergalactic travelers.
Viewed in this light, The Terminal seems both a summation and
an extension of Spielberg’s filmography. From camera moves to lighting effects to sound design,
the whole contraption illustrates several of Spielberg’s pet tropes. These include the stranger
in a strange land mastering his new environment, different cultures discovering they’re more
similar than different, the humble voyager daring to step through a portal separating one way of
life from another, and the idea that even when the flesh is enslaved, the soul remains free. (Think
of the imprisoned slaves in Amistad studying and then seeing through Christian imagery,
in order to understand the culture of their captors, or the plucky young Jim in Empire of the Sun creating a zone of independence within a Japanese P.O.W. camp.)
While the story is credited to writers Sacha Gervasi and Andrew Niccol—who
explored themes of freedom and conformity in his debut film Gattaca and his screenplay
for The Truman Show—and the script to Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson, The Terminal‘s
sense of movement and texture are distinctly Spielberg’s. But with a few exceptions, he works at
quieter volume than usual. The terminal itself, constructed on an enormous soundstage, is a miracle
of dramatic engineering that would have delighted Tati. Yet somehow the movie feels small, in the
best sort of way. Many of the images are remarkable for being outwardly unremarkable—for
example, the English-handicapped Viktor’s first interview with the airport’s chief bureaucrat,
Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), which unfolds in plain close-ups and a two-shot of the men seated on
either side of Dixon’s desk, a configuration that lets Hanks and Tucci take over and turn exposition
into word jazz.
When Spielberg trots out spectacular visual flourishes, they’re never
arbitrary. An early scene of Dixon giving Viktor a half-sarcastic tour of his new home is filmed
in a series of fast-circling Steadicam shots, the favored technique of directors who want to make
a scene more exciting without bothering to make it meaningful. Spielberg makes it meaningful;
the circling camera denies us a fixed position and wordlessly underlines Viktor’s disorientation,
his dislocation, his anxiety. Another early scene finds Viktor racing through the airport, trying
to gather news of a coup in his native land, and arriving at each new airport tv monitor split seconds
before the story ends. In the last part of this sequence, the bedraggled Viktor chases the tv signal
into the reception area of a VIP club and is shooed away by an employee. Standing outside afterward,
he strains to catch a few more glimpses of the news on a set in the reception area, but is denied access
by a pebbled glass door that slides shut in front of his face. The glass door transforms a flesh-and-blood
person into a silhouette, an abstraction, a non-person—a visual analogy for Viktor’s treatment
by America’s bureaucracy.
More evidence of Spielberg’s distinctive genius can be found in two
camera moves that occur near the beginning and end of the picture. The first starts on a medium-close
shot of Viktor in a terminal crowd, then cranes back and up, moving further away from the hero until
his face becomes a pointillistic dot in a canvas of humanity. The image underscores Viktor’s imprisonment
within the terminal and the temporary obliteration of his individuality. The very similar move,
near the end, comes in a different context and means something else entirely: absolute freedom
of movement, the ability to go where one pleases and lose oneself in the anonymity of a crowd.
Spielberg’s command of film technique is so complete that he can deploy
two nearly identical shots in the same film in such a way that the second refutes the first. Few filmmakers
throughout history have demonstrated such precision and confidence. A friend who fits that description
should not be taken for granted. o